We returned to our tiny apartment after one of our first visits to Holy Trinity Parish. We had gone to lunch afterward, talking a bit about how we liked the community, the liturgy, the music, the space and the people. When we got home, we noticed the little light blinking on our phone. When we clicked to listen the voicemail, we heard a lovely, rich, southern lady’s voice flow through the speakers, “Hello Lisa and Stuart, my name is Edie Shepherd, from Holy Trinity. I just wanted to call and welcome you to the church….”
I’ll never forget that day, with how welcomed we felt, being new to Georgia, not having family here, struggling to discern what God was calling me to do in terms of my vocation, wondering about our future as a family—suddenly a bit excited about what might be.
We were welcomed into Holy Trinity Parish in Decatur, Georgia. We were welcomed by Edie Shepherd, and we were welcomed by the entire community there. Being welcomed is a wonderful thing…
But it helps a bit to unpack just what we were welcomed into…
Today’s portion of St. Matthew’s Gospel comes at the end of one of Jesus’ teachings to his disciples. It always helps to know where a particular text falls, to not isolate it and beat it with a hose (in Billy Collins’ words) to make it say what you want it to say. Preachers do this all the time…
This particular text comes at the end of Jesus’ sending his disciples out. I always think of this text and similar ones when I’m in the chapel next door. I sit and look at the small pewter statues in the case, full of the disciples—minus Judas Iscariot and plus St. Paul who we would say had an honorary degree.
Jesus sends the disciples out with honesty. He doesn’t tell them oh, it’s going to be just wonderful. You’re going to love discipleship! And folks are just so friendly in these parts. And they’re going to love hearing the stories you have to tell. They are so open. And, the food! They’re just going to knock your socks off with the food and wine. Have fun!
Jesus knew what the reality was going to be for the disciples. As he says in earlier verses,
- I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (v. 16)
- Brother will betray brother… (v.21)
- …have no fear of them; for nothing is uncovered that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known…(v.26)
- Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. (v.34)
- Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.(v.39)
Discipleship is going to be hard. It’s going to cost them something….a great deal, in fact. Tradition tells us that all of them but St. John were killed in some way through the living out of their discipleship. Jesus wasn’t inviting them into a life of luxury…
We look back on these texts, on the lives of the disciples, and we think about how hard times were for them. It’s so tempting to bracket off their lives and consider those times as somehow radically different from our own. Christians were openly persecuted then, killed, (as our hymn says, ‘slayed by a fierce wild beast). The disciples struggled to live into the truth they carried with them.
And that’s why Jesus ends his sending out the way he does.
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple– truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.
Jesus wanted them to see that they were being sent out to live into the life of a disciple: to experience the complexities of being welcomed and to live into the call to welcome others into the life of faith. But they weren’t going out alone….Jesus was going to be with them…
In our Listening Circles, the first part of this year, we spoke a good deal about hospitality, about “radical hospitality.” We wondered together about how Grace Parish is being invited to welcome folks into this community, to ask their questions, to bring with them their perspectives, their stories, their struggles, their wonders…. We shared with each other that, when we say we want the parish to “grow,” we’re talking about this growth in depth…
In our part of the world, it’s easy to slip into the mindset of seeing “church” as another social club—albeit one that has significance and history. And, when we meet folks who are new, we want them to “feel at home,” and “be a part of the community.” We want them to “find their place here” and “feel welcomed.”
But, we would do well to remember that we are inviting folks into a life of faith—just as someone crucial in our lives invited us into a life of faith. Every single one of us has an Edie Shepherd, someone who reached out their hand and guided us into this complex, rich, wonderful, sometimes frustrating, often confusing community of believers that we call “the church.”
Because we need each other. Because our life isn’t easy. We may look at the lives of the disciples and see how they were killed for practicing their faith, and we know that we’ll probably never face that. Yet, Christians are killed today in the world. And so many people of all faiths continue to lash out against each other.
So, the words of Jesus anchor us, as we continue living our lives and practicing our faith. He reminds us that we are not alone—that we are a part of something much larger than ourselves. The saints remind us that we are called into community, to support one another and hold one another up, to ask questions of each other and encourage one another to grow in faith.
May we continue to take seriously our call offer hospitality in the world today, to reach out our hands and lift up those who need lifted up: spiritually and physically. Because we, ourselves, are constantly being lifted up by a God who loves us and wants us to thrive.
The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham
Proper 8, Year A
June 29, 2014